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A referendum on Netanyahu

Rather than highlighting ideological battles or political strategies, the current Israeli election reflects the Zeitgeist of an era.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem on March 2, 2020. Photo by Marc Israel Sellem/POOL.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem on March 2, 2020. Photo by Marc Israel Sellem/POOL.
Fiamma Nirenstein
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies.

Israel is trembling with uncertainty ahead of Tuesday’s election, whose outcome nobody can predict. But, unlike previous Knesset elections, this one—the fourth in two years—is not seeing the arrival in droves of foreign journalists.

Rather than highlighting ideological battles or political strategies, this election reflects the Zeitgeist of an era. It is embodied in this one 71-year-old political figure: Israel’s incumbent prime minister, who has served for a record 12 consecutive years and 16 in total: Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu.

An intellectual, the son of the great Jewish historian Benzion—a close associate of Zionist leader and Revisionist movement founder Ze’ev Jabotinsky—he is also the brother of the late Yonatan Netanyahu, who was killed while leading the Israel Defense Forces’ elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal in the 1976 Entebbe hostage-rescue operation. Bibi himself was a member of Sayeret Matkal, as was his younger brother, Iddo.

He is a liberal conservative, secular, yet respectful of traditional Judaism, and with none of the post-Zionist leanings fashionable today among so many Jews.

Under his leadership, there have been no wars. He has brought Israel the gift of the world’s most successful COVID-19 vaccination program, a stable economy and peace with four Islamic states through the Abraham Accords while fighting against Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal. The opposition to his left harbors a visceral, “woke,” anti-right hatred for him—which it has been expressing hysterically through weekly demonstrators in front of his residence in Jerusalem.

His indictments on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust focus on his alleged attempt to receive better coverage in a particular media outlet, not money.


So, the left—together with the many enemies that he has made throughout the years on both sides of the political spectrum—are livid. Among these rivals are members of the haredi community and the country’s Arab citizens, who feel abandoned and misrepresented. Hence the slogan: “Anybody but Bibi.”

The most pressing issue at the moment, however—less than 24 hours before Israelis head to the polls—is which party will be able to build the 61-mandate coalition needed in order to clinch a ruling majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Likud, Netanyahu’s party, is well ahead of the others. According to a final poll aired by Israel’s Channel 13 on Friday, it stands to gain 30 seats, while the largest opposition party, Yesh Atid—led by Yair Lapid, a former finance minister under Netanyahu, who hasn’t formally acknowledged running for prime minister, and unsuccessfully called on Netanyahu to debate him—is poised to obtain 18 seats.

Right-wing parties appear to have the advantage, with Naftali Bennett’s Yamina polling at nine to 10 seats, and the haredi parties—United Torah Judaism and Shas—along with the Religious Zionism Party, adding several more. But former Likud member Gideon Saar, founder of the New Hope Party (nine to 10 seats) and Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu (six to seven seats), swear that they will never enter into a coalition with Netanyahu, despite both being on the right.

Meanwhile, even if he could theoretically muster a coalition of 61, Lapid has no idea how many alliances he will be able to bank on, as several left-wing parties, particularly Meretz, but also Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, may not pass the electoral threshold. The disappearance of such parties could create a cascade of wasted votes. In the previous election, 8.5 percent of votes were squandered. Netanyahu hopes that he has broadened his support among a part of the Arab electorate, and it appears that he has, in fact, successfully done so.

The relentless anti-Bibi campaign, which can count on the monolithic and tireless nature of the Israeli media, has created a precarious situation. The desire even by moderates like Saar or Bennett to replace him is great.

But the reality is that there is no Israeli politician in these elections who has the ability to challenge the prime minister. Neither Lapid nor Bennett nor even Saar currently possesses the stature necessary to lead a country like Israel, which is always on the brink of fateful events.

But the strike against Bibi that is crucial to keep in mind is the immense power of the politically correct elites. Anyone who doesn’t toe their line is denied entry into events; passed over for literary or artistic prizes; or turned down for coveted positions in academia and elsewhere.

The good news is that those elites are noisier than they are numerous.

The taxi driver who drove me home a few days ago upon hearing that I wasn’t part of the “anybody but Bibi” crown, exclaimed: “What a relief! I can finally be open about liking him. So listen, Netanyahu saved us from COVID-19 and brought us genuine peace. What more could we ask for than this?”

Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. 

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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